“Feminism, history, literature, politics—this tale has all of that, and a heroine worthy of her own turn in the spotlight.” —Therese Anne Fowler, bestselling author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
A revelatory new portrait of the courageous woman who saved Dostoyevsky’s life—and became a pioneer in Russian literary history
In the fall of 1866, a twenty-year-old stenographer named Anna Snitkina applied for a position with a writer she idolized: Fyodor Dostoyevsky. A self-described “girl of the sixties,” Snitkina had come of age during Russia’s first feminist movement, and Dostoyevsky—a notorious radical turned acclaimed novelist—had impressed the young woman with his enlightened and visionary fiction. Yet in person she found the writer “terribly unhappy, broken, tormented,” weakened by epilepsy, and yoked to a ruinous gambling addiction. Alarmed by his condition, Anna became his trusted first reader and confidante, then his wife, and finally his business manager—launching one of literature’s most turbulent and fascinating marriages.
The Gambler Wife offers a fresh and captivating portrait of Anna Dostoyevskaya, who reversed the novelist’s freefall and cleared the way for two of the most notable careers in Russian letters—her husband’s and her own. Drawing on diaries, letters, and other little-known archival sources, Andrew Kaufman reveals how Anna protected her family from creditors, demanding in-laws, and her greatest romantic rival, through years of penury and exile. We watch as she navigates the writer’s self-destructive binges in the casinos of Europe—even hazarding an audacious turn at roulette herself—until his addiction is conquered. And, finally, we watch as Anna frees her husband from predatory contracts by founding her own publishing house, making Anna the first solo female publisher in Russian history.
The result is a story that challenges ideas of empowerment, sacrifice, and female agency in nineteenth-century Russia—and a welcome new appraisal of an indomitable woman whose legacy has been nearly lost to literary history.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Decent Thing to Do
Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina was born in Petersburg on August 30, 1846, the balmy feast day of the thirteenth-century warrior-prince Saint Alexander Nevsky, amid the sonorous ringing of monastery bells and the solemn strains of a military band. Later in life, she would say that the timing and ceremonial spirit of her arrival in the world were no coincidence. For like her patron saint, who repelled foreign invaders and united the far-flung tribes of the Great Rus', Anna Dostoyevskaya would become a Russian warrior after her own fashion.
She would begin that journey, paradoxically, in the most westernized of Russian cities, the famed capital built by Peter the Great at the beginning of the eighteenth century as part of his project to modernize what he considered a backward society. Peter designed his "window to the West" with charming Venetian-style canals and an orderly grid of narrow streets lined by two- and three-story classical buildings. Adorning the city's center, along the embankment of the Neva River, was the tsar's stately Winter Palace. From here one could see, on the other shore of the Neva, the magnificent Stock Exchange, flanked by two rostral columns and a granite embankment descending to the river, and the Peter and Paul Fortress, the city's original citadel, which by Anna's time had been adapted into a prison for political convicts. (Dostoyevsky himself would be held here for several months in 1849 while awaiting his sentence.) The farther one traveled from the city's center, the seat of its political and cultural power, the dingier the streets and buildings became. It was here, in the cramped, poorly ventilated apartments situated in Petersburg's back alleys, that many of Dostoyevsky's own tormented characters dwelled.
Anna Snitkina enjoyed a comfortable girlhood in her family's two-story brick home not far from the city's center, on a nearly five-acre plot of land at the corner of Kostromskaya and Yaroslavskaya streets. The family owned this and three other houses on the same land, purchased with money inherited from Anna's maternal grandfather, a Finnish landowner. The well-to-do Snitkins lived on the second floor of the largest house, which was adjacent to a giant, shady garden studded with richly scented berry shrubs, and rented out the other rooms to tenants. Anna's enterprising mother managed the rentals, while Anna's father, Grigory Ivanovich Snitkin, served as a civil servant in a government ministry. Here Anna spent her "quiet, measured, and serene" childhood, a period "without quarrels, dramas, or catastrophes."
As a young girl, she was given few children's books. "No one tried to 'develop' us," she would recall-a laissez-faire approach to child-rearing in an era when the influence of English utilitarian philosophy and French social thought had led to a rash of self-improvement fads and theories of social progress, from Socialism to Materialism, Positivism to Pietism. A glance at advertisements in the thick journals of the day, offering everything from cures for venereal disease to supposedly life-changing spiritual seances, suggests a Russian people that believed-or wanted to believe-in the possibility of a panacea for all that ailed mankind. But these utopian dreams and cure-all promises were so much snake oil, as far as the Snitkins were concerned. Proudly holding to their bourgeois ways, they valued above all else hard work, modesty, and the virtuous gratifications of quiet daily service to others.
Although hardly pampered, Anna and her siblings-her older sister, Masha, and younger brother, Ivan-had enjoyable childhoods, playing in the large family garden from morning to night during the summer, and in the winter sledding down the ice hill their father had constructed for them. At Christmastime, the family lighted a fir tree; during Carnival weeks their parents took them for rides in carriages decorated with shiny bells and bright whistles. Twice a year, they went to the theater. On holidays Anna's relatives came to the Snitkins' spacious apartment from near and far to celebrate, often staying until late into the night. Anna's own arrival into the world came during one such celebration, an event the family greeted as a harbinger of future happiness-a prophecy Anna later insisted had come true in the end.
One of her first conscious memories was of an incident that occurred when she was a toddler: a local drayman rode into a collapsing old barn owned by the Snitkins. Two-year-old Anna looked on with her mother and nurse, all of them letting out terror-stricken screams, only to discover moments later, "as luck would have it," that the man had miraculously survived. The same force was at work a year later when she suffered a severe illness. Whether it was the writhing leeches creeping across her naked chest that cured her, or her mother's insistence that she receive communion and pray before the miraculous icon of the All-Compassionate Mother of God hanging in the church on Shpalernaya Ulitsa, Anna could not say. But whatever the source of her healing, from that moment on, she would remain convinced that some divine force was looking over and protecting her.
The Snitkins loved to tell such tales. Anna also recalled the story of how her father, "a man of very exuberant nature, nimble-witted, and given to pranks," enjoyed his youth so thoroughly that he waited until he was forty-two before proposing to Anna Nikolayevna Miltopeius, a slender, strikingly beautiful twenty-nine-year-old whose family descended from a Swedish line of scholars including a Lutheran bishop. At the insistence of Snitkin's parents, the bride-to-be was to convert to Russian Orthodoxy before marrying Snitkin-no small sacrifice for a girl with her lineage. On the evening just before she was to give her final answer, Anna Nikolayevna dropped to her knees before the crucifix in her parents' home, hoping for guidance. After the better part of an hour, she looked up and saw a magical radiance lighting up the entire room above the crucifix before fading again. As she watched, the aura appeared a second time and then a third. Later that same night, in a dream in which she'd entered an Orthodox church to be anointed, Anna Nikolayevna suddenly found herself standing right next to the Shroud of Christ. Together, the two signs-the vision above the crucifix and the dream-sealed her conviction that she was fated to convert to Russian Orthodoxy and marry Snitkin. (Two weeks later, during the actual anointment ritual within the Simyonovskaya church, she was astonished to find herself standing next to the very Shroud of Christ she'd seen in her dream.)
Anna Nikolayevna was never able to read the prayers in Old Church Slavonic, but she brought all the fiery devotion of a recent convert to her adopted Orthodox faith, never regretting her decision. "Otherwise," she used to tell her children, "I would have felt remote from my husband and children, and that would have been painful for me." Her daughter sensed that she was the "real head of the house," while her father "yielded to her willingly," reserving for himself only a few cherished freedoms, such as the right to stop at the local antique markets to buy knickknacks and rare porcelains.
Yet her father could also surprise Anna with random acts of courage that seemed to belie his otherwise pliant nature. As a ten-year-old, he had been stopped on his way to school by a well-dressed gentleman who asked Snitkin to come quickly to his home to serve as the godfather of a newborn boy. The young Snitkin agreed without hesitation, finding out only after the fact that he was fulfilling a popular tradition: in cases where all children in a family have died, then a newborn child must be christened by the first person the child's father encounters. Anna often cited the story as a moving example of her father's easy and spirited generosity.
Anna also inherited from her father a love of fairy tales-his favorite being "Ivan Durachok," or "Ivan the Fool," which he recounted to his children in endless variations each night after dinner. Snuggled between her brother and sister, Anna would listen with delight to find out how Ivan would manage to cleverly extricate himself from yet another misfortune. Without knowing it, Anna was absorbing two essential life skills she would one day need to draw on: storytelling and the art of survival. Indeed, in the playful poetry she and Dostoyevsky would compose many years later, making light of their daily misfortunes during their European travels, one can hear the jaunty rhythms and lighthearted spirit of Mr. Snitkin's favorite fairy tale.
Mr. Snitkin was also a passionate devotee of high art, which he regarded with an almost religious reverence. In his youth he had worshipped the celebrated tragic actress Varvara Asenkova, spending his evenings at the theater to gaze at her in performance, and eventually finagling his way backstage to meet her. To his surprise and delight, Asenkova took an immediate liking to her young admirer, making a point of handing him her bouquet and shawl whenever she took the stage to recite the verses of Racine or Corneille, and allowing him to escort her back to her dressing room after a performance. After the actress's untimely death from consumption, the young Snitkin was so heartbroken that he was unable to enter a theater for years; he paid regular visits to Asenkova's grave. Anna later recalled how her father brought her and her older sister, Masha, to the actress's grave and made his daughters kneel before the gravestone and "pray for the repose of the soul of the greatest artist of our age."
Anna's father was also the one who introduced her to the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Reading his autobiographical Notes from the House of the Dead in Time between 1860 and 1863, when she was in her mid-teens, she was pained to read the convict-narrator's account of his years of hard labor in Siberia. Encountering The Insulted and Injured in the same magazine in 1861, Anna commiserated with the dreamy, penniless young writer Ivan Petrovich, whose love for Natasha is scuttled after her parents force him to postpone their marriage until he is more established professionally. Natasha falls in love with Alyosha, the ne'er-do-well son of a cruel, wealthy merchant, until he tries to steer Alyosha away from Natasha into a more lucrative match.
It was a typical early Dostoyevskian plot, with a meek, purehearted dreamer-artist confronting a harsh reality peopled with social predators. Anna Snitkina, who had a lifelong antipathy for egoists, reflexively sided with the underdog, and she was drawn to Dostoyevsky's portraits of personal injustice. "I simply couldn't understand," she admitted to Dostoyevsky after they were engaged, "how Natasha could prefer that worthless Alyosha to my dear Ivan Petrovich. While I was reading the novel I would think, 'She deserved what she got because she rejected the love of Ivan Petrovich.'" She intuited, rightly, that Ivan Petrovich was a surrogate for the author himself: "It seemed to me that it was Dostoyevsky himself telling his sad story of unsuccessful love." An attentive follower of his work and life story, she recognized the novel's autobiographical overtones-not least the fact that Petrovich was a writer whose first novel bore a striking similarity to Dostoyevsky's own debut, Poor Folk, with which Anna was of course familiar.
Anna's passion for Dostoyevsky was so pronounced that, by the time she was sixteen, her family had nicknamed her "Netochka Nezvanova," after one of the author's unfinished novels. Netochka Nezvanova-a phrase meaning "Uninvited Nobody," but more commonly interpreted as "Nameless Nobody"-recounts the anguished childhood of a talented, emotionally abused orphan girl, who is shepherded from one "accidental family" and dysfunctional relationship to the next before, at the age of eighteen, she is able to channel her painful experiences into a budding singing career.
Dostoyevsky's work on Netochka Nezvanova was cut short after his arrest and imprisonment; the first two installments were published before his arrest in April 1849, and the third appeared a month later. He never completed the project, but if he had, it would have become nineteenth-century Russia's first feminist novel: the very first book, as scholar Joseph Frank noted, to "depict a talented and strong-willed woman who refuses to allow herself to be crushed-who becomes the main positive heroine of a major [Russian] novel."
In fashioning such a story, Dostoyevsky was anticipating one of the most dramatic upheavals in Russian culture of the mid-nineteenth century: the rise of a distinct feminist movement. Feminist ideas had circulated within the Russian aristocracy since the late 1700s, but the "woman question" was first elevated to broad public attention in an influential article published in 1856 by the surgeon and pedagogue Nikolai Pirogov. Inspired by the skill and courage of female nurses he had supervised in the Crimean War, Pirogov argued that education was essential to prepare women to become true partners of their husbands in the struggle to defend the material and spiritual well-being of the nation. Pirogov is credited with making education a central goal of the early Russian feminist movement-an objective that bore fruit when the government approved a plan to open the first secondary schools for girls in 1858 and then opened university courses to female students the following year. Another early advocate was the writer Mikhail Mikhailov, who proposed a systematic program for women to achieve emancipation by raising their children early in life before shifting their attention to employment and productive social activity. Mikhailov, himself part of an amicable mŽnage ˆ trois, was also an early proponent of giving women the freedom to divorce, to ensure that marital unions could be based on love.
In the years that followed, other voices-many of them women-joined the debates. "Ladies. Stop being children. Try to stand on your own two feet!" exhorted Marya Vernadskaya, coeditor with her husband of the Economic Index, around 1860. She told women it was time to stop frittering away their days in meaningless activity and start earning their own living. Overnight, it seemed, hundreds of women's societies emerged, in the provinces as well as the big cities, to help women do just that. "Women in Russia have virtually no social significance," complained one organizer in the town of Perm, where she became known for showing up at rallies carelessly dressed, her hair closely cropped. Russian women had too long been valued, she said, "neither as wives nor as mothers, since until now men have had complete power over them." It was up to women, she said, to join in solidarity in order to defend their dignity and their rights. Other feminists poured their energies into charitable causes that specifically supported women. The popular Sunday School movement, for example, offered women the opportunity to teach reading, writing, sewing, and religion to young girls of lower and middle classes-"the very first outlet," recalled one teacher, "for our aspiration for work, for the public good, and for contacts with the people."
Table of Contents
I The Gamble
1 The Decent Thing to Do 3
2 The Gambler 18
3 A Novel Proposal 48
4 What Is to Be Done? 67
5 Crossing the Threshold 78
II The Reckoning
6 A New Beginning 101
7 The "Gambler Wife" 127
8 Turgenev 144
9 Life and Fate 156
10 The Possessed 175
11 The Final Spin 188
III The Payoff
12 The Publisher 205
13 A Test 230
14 At the Prophet's Side 249
15 Death of a Husband 268
IV The Long Twilight
16 High Priestess of Dostoyevsky 281
17 Death of a Wife 300
Epilogue: The Afterlife of Anna Dostoyevskaya 307
A Note on Sources 317